When the boy finished his hours of practice he went backstage to watch the old man in performance. His muscles were sore from standing still with legs bent and back straight, to strengthen his thighs and send the energy of his center, (the ‘chi,’) into the mask he'd been instructed to wear. All afternoon doubts chanted inside: "Will the audience see my mask come alive? Will my story be clear? Will my instructors applaud?” Today they had not. In a dusty, dark corner, he rubbed his legs to ease the soreness.
Crouching backstage in the shadows of the wings he could remain undiscovered. He watched the performance and listened to the musicians play drums and koto against the song of the choral chanter who told the story being danced by the actor, his Father.
It was tradition that Noh actors and musicians never rehearsed for performances together. Instead, each actor, musician, and choral chanter practiced the movements, songs, and dances alone and independent. It was in this way that the inspiration of each new performance was not dictated by any single artist but created in collaboration, established in the moment by all the performers together. It was magic. It was always new. For the boy, it seemed impossible.
The boy trained under the tutelage of senior members of the ensemble and was coached by his father. He began at age three and now he was still an apprentice. Therefore, he was required to practice many hours alone, and it had been this way since he was 10. Today, it felt as if there were no source left for him to draw patience or belief. For now he was 16, and after a disastrous morning class, it felt like there would never be another chance to become everything that he hoped for. He gazed down at the scratched floors of the wings. His stomach turned as his future defeat flew into his mind and kept his eyes in a blur.
In the last four months he had grown three inches . He felt like a stranger in his own skin, confused by bigger feet that needed larger shoes every 30 days. Thus, he kept losing his balance when he danced. Daily aches and pains pinched inside his muscles as they strained to stretch to stay connected to his growing bones.
Tonight, backstage in the darkness, he reached with his eyes, blinking away the stinging sweat, trying as he did every day to humbly sense the secrets his father commanded, secrets he imagined were the answers to this impossible journey which each sunrise became more exhausting.
Tonight, his father was dancing the role of the crane in a play he had written himself. He was one of the few master actors whose skill had reached such perfection and sophistication that he had earned the right of creating a few plays to add to the traditional repertory of stories retold each year for thousands of dedicated audience members his ancestors had performed in front of for over two hundred years. The crane was a new and exciting role, one he might inherit someday, as part of this illustrious family of distinguished actors in the Noh Theatre of Japan. It would be his greatest honor.
So, he struggled and learned, practiced and practiced, and, this week, more than not, he had failed. It drove him crazy, further distracting his balance. But time and again his fatherwould say:
“Two steps forward my son, and one step in retreat. You must learn to stumble backwards with gratitude. Then reflect and reach beyond what you cannot believe in your heart you can reach. This you must do as I have done. This is your heritage. This is your place.”
Inside his mind, he parroted his father’s words. He imagined his sarcastic tongue fully extended and his eyes crossed like a monkey jumping up and down to mimic his father in gleeful triumph, screaming:
“The blood of all of us who have graced this stage flows in your veins. Know your strength, even in despair and know that who you are is the reason you may succeed.”
Casting his eyes to the worn oak of the rehearsal floor he garbled unintelligibly to himself:
“Yes, yes, sure enough and blah-de-blah blah, and if only once I could see you stumble onstage. I would laugh and point, jeer and scold, and then razz you, old man!”
In the Noh Theatre, the skills of performance were passed down from Father to son, each move, each story practiced together again and again, until the son’s muscles and mind claimed their inheritance. Only a few were truly able to assimilate all until every nuance hat had delighted audiences for thousands of years. Each had a different road to discover the needed breathe of artful life to place into the characters and plays. Artistry was a hard fought inner warfare and not easily or always won.
In Dynasties past, the theatre was fully paid for by the Royal Courts. Now it was up to ticket receipts to pay salaries and costume cleaning – to keep alive this austere and cherished art for future generations. This was added pressure on the few families that spent their lifetimes and livelihood nurturing the young to continue the origin of a timeless art.
With the temptations of television fame and conventional acting careers it was increasingly difficult to keep teenage apprentices within the folds of tradition - and away from Hollywood and the trappings worldwide online and on the big screen.
Now the boy had reached this crooked stage of temptation. Nothing seemed right. Ever. No matter how hard he tried he was always at odds with himself. This made him wish that he were born a CEO’s son, or the son of a fisherman, or that he belonged to some New-Age Liberal Ma and Pa with a Western sense of chill. Guardians whose offspring were granted early independence. Anything, rather than being obligated to follow the impossible example of a Master, pressured by the mean ghosts of his ancestors who stood around whispering incessantly, obsessed with haunting his composure.
It was spring, and the world was fragrant and alive. He heard the shouts of other, regular l boys outside, running past the rehearsal hall and onto the fields to play ball. He felt like a sleeping caterpillar inside a green cocoon, encased and unable to join the world. He wanted more friends and he wanted to be free and he wanted to play and feel alive within his own skin. When he whined, his Father would say,
“Quiet. Breathe. Be content, my son, for you have a gift. If you can fully commit you will bring honor to your family and beauty to the world. Rewards are only found within, and you must trust this old man: yours will be substantial. Be patient. Stay the course of your training.”
He paused as he watched his son’s eyes go within and offered an unusual empathetic remark. “Know that I understand. I would not ask for so much without seeing that happiness awaits you.”
It was known that his father’s acting displayed an uncanny, supernatural beauty. At an almost impossible age he had reinvented his career by creating the role of the crane. Even on tour in America, where the dance-like movements of the traditional Noh plays were strange – even offsetting to Western audiences – there was a special magic in the way his father performed; an energy that rendered even the most traditionally minded U. S. theatre audience entranced. As he watched from the dark wings he saw the old man’s quiet assurance, remote, elusive.
“How does he do it?” He thought. “He moves so easily: Such power, such grace, he is like a sky at autumn dusk; no sound, no color and yet every performance the audience is moved to tears, unaware of the reason.”
His father would say, “My impatient son, watch what I do, hear how I think. Imagine how I clear away each distraction. Dance, move, concentrate, hear the music, tell the story, feel the thread -- glory in effortless effort! Practice, practice, practice! Remember! Being part of an illustrious family of artists you have a better chance than most. Your Hana* will blossom or fall, per your talent, and if it is real it will endure: When a flower is true, though the leaves are scarce and the branch withered, the blossom remains.” This was little consultation. He longed for a day off.
After the performance, the boy joined his father in the dressing room as he prepared to go home in between the afternoon and evening performance.
The boy said, almost to himself, “Father, it was so easy when I was little. I could charm the instructors without effort.”
“Yes,” replied his father and continued to wipe away the make-up in his habitual way, caring for a face that had played two lifetimes of performances.
“You were disguised by innocence. But your flower was not yet true.”
“And now it is a weed,” the boy said, eyes casting involuntarily to his bare feet. “I stumble, I strain my voice, and I’m constantly embarrassed in class. If things do not change I will dishonor our family.”
“Practice.” was the Mentor’s simple, unquestionable reply.
“Practice? Bah! Is that all?” He blurted in a risky edge of defiance; a tone he knew had no place with his father.
“Perform,” spoke the older voice in the humorous, teasing guise of an even older, feeble elder. He stood and walked to the door, knowing that it was now time for the boy to think on his own.
His son’s words quipped in angry jolts, “You don’t even care that my instructors laugh! Even you do not hesitate to frown at the least mistake. I just hate this!”
“Then, take no note.” His father calmly quipped back.
“Easy for you to say!”
The old man stopped moving and stood motionless for a moment stilling his breath. He had spent a lifetime learning to hear and respond with a calculated true heart full of generosity and understanding. After a time, he opened his eyes, and with a double-edged reply kindly instructed:
“Go away impatient bird, practice your forms in an effort that is pure...if you can – No more, no less. Time is the greatest teacher. It will speak to you in silence,”
Under his breath, the boy mumbled, “Time: like Slime. This stinks…”
Without pausing, his Father firmly directed the young actor, “Go now. If you give up, my son, your skill will never increase. When you are older you will establish yourself.”
“When you are 20, 21 maybe…”
“And what the devil do I do until then? Bow when they laugh? Say ‘thank you’ when they point at me? Oh yes, thank you – thank you so much, and do condescend and return when I’m 20 – forgive me till I am ready – endure me until I BLOSSOM!”
Again, his Father said, “Practice,” then turned to go.
Then the boy screamed,” I have practiced and I can’t even begin to do what you ask! I can’t even see it in the eyes of my mind. Do you have a real answer or do you refuse to enlighten me? There are those who whisper of the end of your performing years, closing in like a winter, and yet you withhold your mastery!!”
The old man froze, his back turned to reveal his face. Like in a performance, the boy could feel the old man’s emotional power reach out from the depth of his center and cross the distance like ear-splitting flock of landing geese in the still water – the energy of his intention like a spear of silver light, waving up as if from the scorching sun off a distant white dune, emanated from every pore his image and reached into him. The sharp turn of his grey head broke round, the field of energy became only his stern face in silhouette: this famous man, with focused eyes of intent, shown against the dark shadows reflected from the hall through the rice paper door. His voice boomed low and calm, strong and resonate, connected down to a centered force as if to shakeup every complaint from the deepest marrows of his son's skeleton. He proclaimed in the slow cadence of a chant:
“Could you believe the kind of person who could whisper such an untrue thing?”
Silence and a pause painted the thick air dark with the boy’s confusion and finally he whispered: “I have nothing else to say.”
“Then neither do I,” said the man and turned to leave. As if from the form of his back he spoke with a sound that would echo softly in the room like an evening tide creeping onshore,
“My son, to do is not difficult; to do well is.” And he was gone.
The boy stared into space. After a moment, he began to dance, and he tried to imagine how it felt to be uncanny – to achieve supernatural beauty. He danced and danced, and when the confines of the dressing room prevented his driven, disparaging attempts, he ran to the now empty rehearsal room left humid from the efforts and pain of the afternoon sessions. He flipped on the lights, turned away from the mirrors and continued his quest. He tried again, then tried again, and started again, and started again. Time disappeared and his leg muscles shook with effort and grew burning hot. Driven by his anguish he could not stop until he fell to the floor panting, dripping with sweat-laced tears. He tasted the grime of the wood floor at the edge of his mouth and felt the pain of like hunger's despair stabbing under his ribs.
The theatre was now empty and outside the hush of dusk hung in the air. He quietly wept, imploring his father, begging his ancestors, hoping that no one, even a stranger heard as they passed by,
“I cannot do this anymore! I just cannot do this anymore! I cannot…”
Folding himself on the floor he felt the thump of his heart reassuring that life had not stopped and it beat him inside, slowly rocking him to sleep.
As his body slowed, his father appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Sleep, sleep my angry bird and I will tell you a story…”
With these words, some unknown actor began to dance a colorful story in the most splendid theatre of his dreams. His father’s voice sounded together with his and spoke, sometimes in chorus, and sometimes alone, and it felt as if the images of people, places and magic were dancing with his brain, as this story unfolded, in this way exactly:
The Boy's Dream
Many hundreds of years ago, in a village not far from here there lived a young man, his wife and their one daughter whom they both loved with all their hearts. I cannot tell you their names for only their story remains.
The father was a woodcutter of great talent and the mother had a voice as sweet as a bird. She would compose beautiful songs whenever the moment was right and their days were filled with all the simple pleasures.
It so happened that one day the father left the village to travel to the capital of Japan on business.
“I’ll return with a special surprise for you both and every night, my love, sing me a song. I will hear you”
As the image of her beloved disappeared in the distance the woman rocked her child and sang:
You hear a song unravel
For I am waiting here
A melody will travel
And light upon your ear
A song to keep you near
A song to keep you near
Soon he returned, and you would have been glad my son to see how happy they were to be together again!
“How I missed you! The ride was twice as long coming back. How wonderful you look in that blue dress. You are more beautiful now than when I left. I have brought you something very special…”
From his pocket, he took out a shimmering object shaped like crane. On one side, there were feathers carved in the finest ivory. On the other side was a surface bright as the clearest crystal.
“Look, look, my love, and tell me what you see?”
“Ahhh, it is a woman! With bright eyes and a smiling face. OH! She has on a blue dress just like mine!”
“My love it is you that you see. This is called a mirror! In the Capital, everyone has one!”
It was the first time the woman had seen her own beautiful reflection and for several days she was unable to keep her eyes out of the mirror.
Her husband delighted to secretly watch her, trying to pass the crane without turning it over to smile a silly grin. Sometimes she would make a face to see how her mouth and eyes would change. Then she would laugh and sing, watching her teeth form the shape of her lyrics and laughter. But soon she locked it away in her drawer.
“It is too precious to use everyday.”
The years passed and the daughter grew to be a young woman. She was the very image of her mother, and being so completely cherished she was happy and full of joy. Remembering how lovely she had found herself in the mirror, the mother kept it a secret, afraid it would spark a spirit of vanity in her child. And so, the daughter remained simple and modest and the mirror was almost forgotten.
Now my son, it came to pass that a terrible thing happened to this family. The mother stopped singing one day and became very ill.
“My child, go to the drawer and bring me the crane.” And she did. The ivory feathers were so real that she kept the crane side up thinking this might be her dowry or perhaps a gift of memory. She felt sad to know that holding this crane mean that soon she would be alone.
“Soon,” her mother spoke in a slow whisper, “I will leave you and your Father. When I am gone promise me, that you will turn the crane and look inside each morning and every night. For you will see me there and know that I am watching over you.”
Hearing her daughter promise, the mother closed her eyes for the last time.
Every night and every morning the daughter turned the crane around and saw her mothers’ face, not pale and tired as before, but young and beautiful. At night, she would talk about her day and the problems she had faced. In the morning, she would ask for courage and guidance for the day ahead and she would always say:
“I hope that today I am what you would wish me to be.”
One day, the father noticed her talking into the mirror he asked,
“What are you doing my child? At daybreak and nighttime I see you speak to the crane - then you laugh or cry or whisper. What is it you are doing?”
And the daughter replied, “Before she died, mother said she would talk to me every day. She made me promise to look for her here.”
” Then, that is what you must do,” he said, and he walked away, touched by her innocence.
One morning as she carried the mirror to her room the song of a crane called outside. As she turned in surprise to see it fly, the mirror slipped out of her hand and fell to the wood floor, shattering into a thousand pieces. She picked it up to find the familiar image and saw no one. Her blood lurched into her face and burned her cheeks with a flush of the deepest fear. She dropped the empty frame and ran out of the house and down to the lake by the village, calling out over and over,
“What will I do? Whom will I talk to?”
A crane, perhaps the same she had heard, swam gently on the lake. Hearing the cries, it lifted its wings and took to the air. As she buried her face in the soft grass on the water’s edge the crane landed silently next to her. She lifted her head just enough to look upon the water and she saw the reflection of the crane whose languid neck moved carefully to see her with one eye and then the other. Next to the Crane and like before, she noticed the reflection of her mother…
“Mother!” she cried, “You are here!”
At that moment, my son, the image of the crane became the face of her mother
And there they were young and old, reflected together in the crystalline still water. And the oldest image spoke:
“My darling, I am not lost, I am here, in the wind and the clouds and the waters.
I wish for you to learn while you are young what it took me all my life to learn. You have the courage to find your own way. For now, you can see that the face to which you spoke was your own.”
The image faded, becoming the crane, which lifted its wings, flew into the sky, and within the gentle breeze of its assent, the young girl saw her own reflection for the very first time!
With this, the youth’s dream ended and he stirred quietly on the hardwood floor and awoke. He saw his Father who, after their tiff, had decided to wait patiently for him. When their gaze met in kind, the older smiled and the younger spoke first:
“Father, you appeared to me in a dream…to tell me a story…a mirror…a crane...I thought…forgive me, it is faded now, I can’t remember…”
His Father reassured without a pause, “Your heart remembers, my son. I am going home to eat. Will you join me?
“No, thank you.”
“Aren’t you hungry, my son?
“Yes, but I will wait.”
“Alright, I’ll see you tonight at the performance? Yes? But what will you do until then?”
As the young man thought of an answer, he looked directly into his fathers’ eyes. Seeing his own reflection, he replied:
“Practice!” and began to dance.
The old crane nodded his head with a serious look and set out for home alone. As he turned away from the young man, he half-way closed his eyes to see the boy in his mind and he smiled. He had been waiting, and today he knew for certain, that they now, indeed, were two different branches of the same strong tree.
* Hana (花, flower): the true Noh performer seeks to cultivate a rarefied relationship with his audience like the way that one cultivates flowers. What is notably about hana is that, like a flower, it is meant to be appreciated by any audience, no matter how lofty or how coarse his upbringing. Hana comes in two forms. Individual hana is the beauty of the flower of youth, which passes with time, while "true hana" is the flower of creating and sharing perfect beauty through performance.